Having guided the first team of women to contest the Volvo Ocean Race in 12 years to an historic leg win in Lorient, for the first six months of 2015, life for Team SCA was full of momentum. But then… well, a roadblock, that she sincerely hopes is only temporary.
The title-sponsors decided not to re-enter the next race in 2017-18 and now Sam and her team-mates are seeking new backers. We caught up with her at the recent Yacht Racing Forum to find out how things were going.
Sam, we’re now six months from the finish of the race in Gothenburg. What are your reflections on the whole campaign now, positive and negative, for Team SCA?
The big negative is that it’s not continuing. After everything that we have all – the girls, SCA, all our coaches, and everybody who helped us in the project – invested into what we did, it’s really frustrating to not see that continue. Well, easily at least. It’s now worrying that it will all be a waste and be like what happened after Amer Sports Too in 2001-02 where there was this massive gap of 12 years when nothing happened in the Volvo Ocean Race for women’s crews.
We wanted to start something that was going to continue and in a non-selfish way, make it easier for future women offshore sailors to go into projects and be more optimistic about having a career in the sport. We knew that if we performed on the sporting side, that would inspire people. But they will only be more inspired if they know there's a future for them.
She continues: We were nowhere when the race started and we learned so much during the race so that we’ve reached a level where we’re ready to really compete now. But the event is over and we need another race to get results and prove to the critics that we can do it.
At the same time, we achieved amazing things and winning a leg in Lorient – the first women’s team to have won a leg overall – was an amazing achievement. Tracy Edwards, of course, also won a leg on Maiden but that was in her division, not the entire race. Even last week I got a special achievement award in Lorient, now my home town, for what we did, winning the leg there. So there’s a lot of reminders all the time about what we did and it’s not something that has been missed or forgotten. Around the world, we’ve been seen and recognised.
Do you feel that, competitively, you did as well as you could have done?
You learn by your mistakes and we made mistakes. It’s a one-design fleet so you only have to make one tiny error and it’s really hard to come back because the boats are all identical. You can’t rely on your boat being faster at a certain angle, for example. But we couldn’t have done more, we did the best we could with the project we had, the tools we had and the time we had. It was full-on, intense and a massive learning experience. And that for me is the achievement: how far we came. How we sailed at the beginning to how we were sailing at the end. There was no comparison.
In intensity, how did it compare with the other top level round-the-world sailing events like the Transat Jacques Vabre you’ve just completed, and the Vendée Globe, both on and off the water?
It’s very different. The other big projects I’ve done I’ve been on my own or double-handed so the media glare isn’t bigger in the Volvo Ocean Race because I was always able to share the press duties with the other girls. Having said that, the Volvo Ocean Race is nine months long and all the other races are just one start and one finish and then it’s over. So for me, the intensity of the Volvo Ocean Race is down to the fact that it never stops and as a skipper you don’t really stop on land either because there is always something to try to make better for the next leg.
It’s not a criticism of the race but what I found particularly hard was the intensity of the last five days leading up to the start. Basically, before every leg I was completely shattered because you’ve just spent five days on the water, sailing pro-ams and so on. It needs to be done, but from a sailor’s point of view it was just very hard. When you leave for a leg, your crew is completely wasted already and I was not used to that.
Do you want to do the race again as a skipper or would you conceive doing it as a crew member?
I’d love to do it again (as a skipper). We haven’t achieved our potential and I learned so much as a skipper. I’d do it completely differently the next time. That isn’t a criticism of Team SCA because it was totally new to everybody. I’m still on that really steep learning curve and I also know how much hard work it is.
When you sign up for the Volvo Ocean Race, it’s not just you who is making the sacrifice. It’s also your family. I’m a mum so it was my son too. My partner gave up his career for the time I was racing the Volvo Ocean Race because he knew he was going to have to bring our son to the stopovers. My mum and dad were also looking after my son. It’s a massive commitment and the one thing that would make me hesitate doing the Volvo Ocean Race again is the whole family side.
How does your partner feel about you doing the race again?
He just thinks it’s an amazing project and opportunity so he would probably push me to go and do it again.
Tell us about the recent Transit Jacques Vabre (TJV). You looked like you were having so much fun with Tanguy de Lamotte?
It’s a totally different experience. You are free to sail how you want to sail. Team SCA was very structured and there were lots of points to respect. SCA is a huge company and there’s a lot to take into consideration from their point of view (in terms of messages from the boat). Most of what came off the boat had to be approved by them first.
Having sailed with Tanguy, was there much difference sailing with a guy rather than a woman?
No. Not double handed like that. For sure, doing some manoeuvres there’s one crew member that’s stronger than the other, but that’s the same with women as well. Otherwise, there’s no difference and we both learned from each other. He’s a boat builder and we had to do a fairly major repair in rough seas – a first for me. I learned a lot from him in that respect, for example. It was a good team.
Have you been surprised at how tough it has been for the crew of Team SCA to find another race sponsor for 2017-18?
For starters, there hasn’t been much time since SCA announced that they were not planning to do the race again. Once I found about their decision, I wanted to communicate it as much as possible, as soon as possible, so that everybody knew about it and didn’t assume they would carry on.
All the girls have got together for the Magenta Project. It’s basically all of us together not wanting this to be a waste. Most of us want to go again together on the Volvo Ocean Race. The ultimate dream of the Magenta Project is to find a sponsor and go again.
But that’s not all. The primary goal is to keep the momentum going and ensure that nobody forgets about us when they’re thinking about who they’re going to put on their crew for various races like the Sydney-Hobart.
We’re here, we’re waiting and we’re actively looking, not just sitting on our heels waiting for that magical sponsor to come along. A lot of the girls are involved in various projects and this shows that even though SCA has stopped, we’re not stopping. We’re ready to go again and to help others join us, making that network bigger.
Finally, tell us about your plans for 2016?
Well, I know what I’m not doing – the Vendée Globe. It’s too soon. I haven’t got a project, a sponsor or a boat. I actually sold my last boat during the Volvo Ocean Race. I promised myself a rest after the Volvo Ocean Race but then you can’t turn down a chance to race across the Atlantic so I actually haven’t had a breather yet - and I need it.